By James Densley and Jillian Peterson
Whenever a school shooting takes place like the one at Oxford High School in suburban Detroit on November 30, 2021, it is typically followed by a familiar chorus of questions.
How could such a thing happen? Why doesn’t the government do more to stop these shootings from occurring?
Those questions are even more urgent in light of the fact that the shooting at Oxford High School was one of 222 school shootings in 2021, an all-time high, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s K-12 School Shooting Database. That’s over 100 more school shootings in 2021 than in 2019 or 2018, respectively the second- and third-worst years on record.
In the Oxford High School case, a 15-year-old boy armed with a semiautomatic handgun is accused of killing four students and injuring six others and a teacher.
As shown in our 2021 book, “The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic,” school mass shooters tend to be current or former students of the school. They are almost always in crisis of some sort before their attack, as indicated by a noticeable change in behavior from usual. They often are inspired by other school shooters, and they also tend to leak their plans for violence in advance to their peers.
And school shooters usually get their guns from family and friends who failed to store them safely and securely.
News reports suggest a lot of this holds true for the Oxford High School shooter. For instance, the suspect’s father allegedly purchased the handgun used in the shooting just four days prior. The shooter reportedly exhibited “concerning” behavior at school and posted pictures of the gun alongside threats of violence on social media.
The question now is how to translate these findings into policy and practice in order to prevent the next school shooting.
Trouble from the start
The data we use to track school shootings is a comprehensive database that includes information on “each and every instance a gun is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time of day, or day of week” going back to 1970.
Working with its co-creator, David Riedman, we uncovered a record 151 school shooting threats in the “back-to-school” month of September 2021, up from a three-year average of 29. Actual school shootings also more than doubled during September 2021 compared with the same month in previous years.
There were 55 school shootings in September 2021, up from 24 in September 2020 and 14 in September 2019. But the school carnage began well before the 2021 school year got underway for most students, as evidenced in the Aug. 13 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
These trends are part of an overall rise in shootings and murders in 2020 and 2021, tied in part to record gun sales. More guns in more hands increases the likelihood that a firearm will find its way into a school.
Schools are struggling to respond to the overwhelming number of shootings and shooting threats. There have been a staggering 30 shootings just at high school football games so far this year.
A “State of Emergency” meeting was held after nine teens were shot in two separate shootings in Aurora, Colorado, in November 2021. Public schools in the area are prohibiting students from leaving for lunch in an effort to keep them safe.
One school in Phoenix, Arizona, banned backpacks and food deliveries after a student was shot in the bathroom on Nov. 29. The Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York State offered remote learning following two separate shooting incidents near its schools on Nov. 22. Schools across the country are increasing safety measures, canceling classes, even using police escorts for students coming onto campus.
These localized responses stand in stark contrast to the national legislative action taken in Finland, Germany and other countries when they experienced deadly school shootings.
Response in the UK
Twenty-five years ago, in March 1996, a gunman walked into Scotland’s Dunblane Primary School and opened fire, killing 16 children and a teacher. A successful campaign for gun regulation followed, laws were changed, handguns were banned and the United Kingdom hasn’t had a school shooting since.
Yet in America, active shooter drills to rehearse for a real shooting incident and armed guards to respond to them are the best children can hope for. There is a US$3 billion “homeroom security” industry, and some parents send their children to school wearing bulletproof backpacks.
Searching for solutions
In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November 2021, we searched public records on 170 mass shooters who killed four or more people from 1966 to 2019 for any communication of intent to do harm. That includes posting a threat on social media or telegraphing future violence to a loved one in person. We found that 79 mass shooters – nearly half of them – leaked their plans in advance. Communication was most common among school shooters and younger shooters. The fact it was most strongly associated with suicidal tendencies or attempts, as well as prior mental health counseling, suggests it may best be characterized as a cry for help.
Threats of violence circulated on campus before the Oxford High School shooting, with some students staying home out of an abundance of caution. There will be questions now about whether threats were disclosed to authorities and handled appropriately, in ways consistent with best practices on threat assessment or what we like to call “crisis response” systems. Our research is clear that all threats must be investigated and treated seriously as an opportunity for real intervention.
There are further implications from our research. If school shooters are nearly always students of the school, educators and others who work with them need training to identify a student in crisis and how to report something they see or hear indicative of violent intent.
Schools also need counselors, social workers and other resources so they can respond appropriately and holistically to students in crisis. This means not unduly punishing students with expulsion or criminal charges – things that could escalate the crisis or any grievance with the institution.
And for parents of school-age children, safe gun storage at home is paramount.
School shootings are not inevitable. They’re preventable. But practitioners and policymakers must act quickly because each school shooting feeds the cycle for the next one, causing harm far beyond that which is measured in lives lost. We believe the steps outlined above can help address that harm, promoting school security while safeguarding student well-being.
James Densley is Professor of Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University. Jillian Peterson is Professor of Criminal Justice at Hamline University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.